The United States needs to catch up to the rest of the world in bilingualism. Only 20% of Americans speak two or more languages, compared to the global average of 50%.
Parents seeking advantages for their children in the global market should prioritize bilingualism. With various leading languages to choose from, knowing which to study is half the battle.
According to the World Economic Forum, Spanish and Mandarin are the top two languages in the world. Experts also suggest French as the language of international diplomacy and the official working language of the United Nations.
Diversity in America
The United States Census Bureau began quantifying language diversity over a century ago. By asking participants what language they speak at home, the government tracked the changing landscape within the country.
Since 1980, the number of Americans who speak a language other than English has tripled. This group, age five and older, also spoke English “very well,” demonstrating true bilingualism.
While language diversity within the United States has increased, most of the American population remains monolingual, speaking only English (78%). Learning a second language (2L) will not only help Americans internationally, but it will also improve communications with the growing immigrant population at home.
The Most Useful Languages Today
Of the many languages spoken in the United States, the Center for Immigration Studies identifies Spanish as the most vital. The United States is the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. “There are now more people who speak Spanish at home in the United States than in any country in Latin America with the exception of Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina.”
Spanish learners in the United States benefit from easy access to native speakers. Developing and maintaining proficiency in a language requires consistent exposure. Liz Hurley, a schoolteacher of 30 years—agreed that the most useful 2L language is Spanish. “With over 42.5 million people (13.4% of the U.S. population) identifying Spanish as their first language, there’s no shortage of native speakers to interact with to improve cultural understanding, develop fluency, and grasp idiom and nuance.”
Globally, there are almost 600 million Spanish speakers. Rafaella Palumbo, founder and director of Languages Alive, has studied linguistics and specializes in language tuition for children and adults.
According to Palumbo, trends in the U.S. economy show an increasing demand for proficiency in Spanish. Palumbo also noted that the language should not be too difficult for English speakers to pick up as “its alphabet and grammar structure render it a relatively accessible language.
One-fifth of the planet speaks Chinese. Mandarin Chinese, specifically, is the most widely spoken first language in the world.
In recent years, China’s economy has boomed, making it the second-largest economy in the world behind the United States. China is a crucial business partner for companies of all sizes. Employers are increasingly seeking Mandarin speakers to liaise with suppliers, customers, and partners in China and throughout Asia.
Though Mandarin is difficult for Westerners, it’s worth learning. “Ultimately, while Mandarin Chinese may pose some challenges to children who learn it at a later stage, it’s indisputable that a substantial number of Mandarin Chinese speakers can be found in both China and worldwide,” said Palumbo. “Additionally, Mandarin Chinese ranks as the second most widely used language on the internet, and a recent report by the British Council highlighted Chinese as one of the top 10 languages with significant future importance.”
English and French are the working languages of the United Nations for day-to-day professional exchanges. Proficiency in French opens avenues for business and diplomacy.
Like Spanish, its similarities to English in alphabet and vocabulary make French highly accessible as a second language regardless of starting age.
When Should Second Language Learning Begin?
Palumbo emphasized the importance of starting early. “The best age for a child to learn a second language is from birth; in fact, researchers agree the cut-off age for a child to reach a native-like fluency is to be exposed to a second language within the first three years of birth.”
“Afterwards, it’s still not clear whether children will ever achieve a complete native-like fluency in their second language. What we know is that they can achieve a native-like accent within the age of 7. The ability to reproduce the new language phonology steeply declines from the age of 8 in most cases.”
While studies suggest that the earlier a child is exposed to a second language (2L), the greater the likelihood for fluency, it is possible to master a language later in life. “Research results are critiqued for failing to separate age from other influences or not identifying which aspects of language learning are being measured,” said Hurley.
“Nevertheless, the best age period appears to be before puberty. Until this point, children’s brains are rapidly developing and forming connections. After, these connections are pruned or strengthened on a ‘use it or lose it’ principle. But that doesn’t mean older second language learners can’t outperform younger ones with the right teaching and learning strategies.”
Lifelong Benefits of Bilingualism
Learning a second language expands opportunities. Bilingual people enjoy increased employability. In industries like international business, translation, tourism, and hospitality, bilingual people have an advantage over their monolingual counterparts. Speaking more than one language can also lead to higher wages. A 2023 study showed that even in low-income industries, bilingualism resulted in higher pay.
Beyond pay, mastering languages like Spanish and Chinese offer access to cultures and people at a deeper level. Travel experiences become richer when able to communicate directly with natives. With apps like Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, and many others, there are countless convenient methods to begin learning a second language today.
It is never too late to begin. Though early education is pivotal to mastering accents and native levels of fluency, consistent practice is equally important. As Hurley mentioned, proper learning strategies can lead to greater success, even in those starting later in life.
Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.